Joseph, the wonder boy

Joseph, the wonder boy

Parshat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26

Joseph is not shy about sharing his dreams and prophecies with the public. He understands prophecy as a gift that ought to guide and give vision to his growing clan.  He speaks what’s on his mind.  His first childhood dream of stalks of wheat bowing before one stalk of wheat raises the hackles of his older brothers. They devise a plot to make him go away. “We shall see what comes of his dreams!” (Genesis 37:20) It is that very question that will haunt them even as we come to the end of Joseph’s life in this week’s parasha. After their father, Jacob, dies, they fear, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for the wrong we did to him?” (Genesis 50:15).  What if we now must serve our younger brother in servitude as he dreamed? He has already ascended to be second-in-command in Egypt. What if he now turns the tables on us, and this whole drama of bringing the 70 souls of Israel down to Egypt becomes a ruse to contain us?

From the time Joseph has revealed to his brothers that he is indeed their brother, he declares his transparency to them several times. He continues to demonstrate his skills as a prophet and clairvoyant.  “It was not you who sent me here but God; and He has made me a father to Pharoah, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:8). He even has plans for them not to integrate themselves into Egypt proper but to live in Goshen (30 kilometers west of the Nile). Joseph continues to project this persona as one who is blessed by God even to the consternation of Pharaoh. Pharaoh wants the brothers to stay in the best part of the land and serve as supervisors to the royal livestock. Joseph comes up with another scheme. The Israelite clan will live in Goshen, separate from Egypt, following their professions as shepherds, which are an anathema to the Egyptians.

This Goshen plan ultimately suits Pharaoh because they are still under his control. We must remember that this people in the historical memory of Egypt has once brought a plague by their grandfather, Abraham, slaughtered Shehem and produced the wonder boy called Joseph. They are mystically powerful. If he cannot fully integrate in Egypt, Pharaoh can at least keep them close. If they truly possess a prophetic spirit, better to keep them in the Nile Valley than to let them cross over and become a contentious and wise power at their border.

Joseph must persuade his brothers that the Goshen plan is for real. “Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:19). His last words to them are kindly and reassuring, according to the Torah.  Joseph never lords himself over them. The dream did not come true.  Joseph serves as their governmental protector for a few more years. The Israelites grow and expand. The “good,” however, ends with his death. The next generation faces persecution. All Egyptian fear and suspicion of Israelite power breaks through the dam. What did Joseph gain by letting his prophetic skills be known? Did he truly know God’s plans? Who alone knows God’s mysteries in the dry times of our lives? The Book of Genesis that begins with mystery in the broadest sense (creation) ends with the words “in a coffin in Mitzrayim” connoting death in the narrowest sense (mitzrayim meaning narrow or Egypt).

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is the spiritual leader of New Light Congregation in Squirrel Hill. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.